1999 July 23

Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., Civil Rights Hero, Dies


Frank M. Johnson, one of the greatest civil rights and civil liberties federal judges in American history, died on this day. He was a federal District Court Judge in Alabama (1955–1979) and then on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (1979–1981). As a Republican appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, he was not beholden politically to segregationist southern Democrats in the Senate. He was involved in a number of important decisions during the height of the civil rights movement: Browder v. Gayle (1956), which ordered the desegregation of the Montgomery, Alabama, buses); Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960, which invalidated a racially discriminatory redistricting plan for Tuskegee, Alabama); United States v. Alabama (1961); Lee v. Macon County Board of Education (1963, which ordered the desegregation of all the schools in Alabama); Williams v. Wallace (1965, which ordered the resumption of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march); White v. Crook (1966, which ended race discrimination of jury selection in Alabama); United States v. Alabama (1966); NAACP v. Dothard, (which ordered a quota system recruitment by the Alabama State Police).

Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995. On August 16, 1977, President Jimmy Carter nominated Johnson to be the Director of the FBI. Johnson almost immediately developed a serious medical condition, however, and had to withdraw. Given his deep civil rights commitments, it is interesting to speculate on how Johnson might have changed the FBI.

Read: Jack Bass, Taming the Storm: The Life and Times of Judge Frank M. Johnson and the South’s Fight Over Civil Rights (1992)

Visit the Frank M. Johnson Federal Building and Court House in Montgomery:

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